Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters
Nancy never imagined her life would amount to much; as an oyster girl in her family’s shop, she spends her days covered in brine, shucking oysters and serving up oyster teas. The highlight of Nancy’s week is going to the local theater to watch the acts, but there is one act that strikes her like no other. When Nancy first sees Kitty Butler’s masher act, she finds herself yearning for something she can’t quite name. What does it mean that she feels a pull every time she sees Kitty? Nancy doesn’t know, but she begins to visit the theater regularly to watch Kitty perform. When Tony, her sister’s beau and the friend who gets Nancy into the shows for free, tells her that Kitty wants to meet the girl in the box, Nancy is arrested with nerves. It is a meeting that changes the course of her life forever and places Nancy on a path that will take her far from the oyster barrels of Whistable shore.
I first learned about Tipping the Velvet when I was working on an essay on female bildungsroman… it was a proposal for an imaginary thesis that I never did write, but the idea always stuck and I’ve been especially intrigued by such stories ever since. Tipping the Velvet is just such as story, the coming-of-age of Nancy Astley, oyster girl from Whistable, into a proud “tom” who finds that she be exactly who she wants to be.
From the very beginning, I can just imagine an elderly Nancy telling her tale to an enthralled audience, her stage skills evoking a sense of drama in her listeners and making them wonder at the highs and lows of her journey from obedient oyster girl to inadvertent Socialist. I watched the film adaptation of the novel last year, and though I sometimes feel that watching the film first detracts from my reading experience (being spoiled in advance and all), Nancy’s unique narrative voice kept me engaged in the story despite my knowing where the plot was going.
I still find that Fingersmith is my favorite Waters novel, but Tipping is now a close second.
On a side note… I started reading A Tale of Two Cities but it hasn’t really grabbed me yet. Can someone sell me on this read? I haven’t had many good experiences with Dickens, but I remember liking a film version of this when I was in high school and wanted to give it a shot. Should Dickens and I part ways, or should I keep reading?